Pump Up Your Protein Knowledge

Pump Up Your Protein Knowledge

Setting the record straight on three myths surrounding this nutrient.

Protein translates into nutrition power in key ways such as providing energy and fueling the muscle-building process. In fact, about 16 percent of your body weight, on average, is protein, so it’s essential to every cell in your body. But while we may understand the basic idea that we need protein, we are likely less certain about other facts regarding the nutrient. For example, is the protein in a glass of milk just as good as that in a cut of steak? And if you work out frequently, do you need more? Here we sort out some of the commonly misunderstood points about protein. (See below for list of sources.)

Myth: All protein is created equal.
Fact: Some forms of protein are, ounce for ounce, better sources than others. In order for a protein to be considered “complete,” it has to contain all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that your body needs (these are the amino acids that our bodies can’t make). Animal proteins (meat, fish, eggs, dairy foods) are complete and top the list as protein powerhouses. Vegetarian protein sources (grains and seeds; beans and legumes; nuts and seeds) also are excellent choices, but be aware that they are generally not complete sources because they don’t contain all the amino acids in adequate amounts (quinoa is one exception). That said, you shouldn’t ditch legumes for rib eyes, as red meat is also high in saturated fat. You can build a complete protein by combining nuts, legumes, and grains in one meal (such as rice-and-beans) or eating them over the course of your day. As is typical with making smart food choices, variety is key. 

Myth: Everyone needs the same amount of protein.
Fact: There is a recommended dietary allowance for protein—56 grams per day for men and 46 grams per day for women, but those are averages. Athletes may need more than couch potatoes. And all of us may need to consider upping protein intake as we get older, to help counteract the loss of muscle mass that happens after age 30 (it’s called sarcopenia). To make sure you’re getting the right amount, ask your doctor to review your nutritional needs at your yearly checkup. One easy way to boost your protein intake is to include the nutrient in your breakfast and in a mid-day snack. Bear in mind, though, that “more protein” doesn’t mean “more cheeseburgers.” A serving of nonfat Greek yogurt or a protein shake fits the bill. 

Myth: Protein helps you lose weight.
Fact: This has a grain or two of truth. Protein requires more energy (in calories) to digest than either fat or carbs do; put simply, your body works harder to break down a chicken breast than it does a plate of pasta. In addition to burning more calories, that slower digestion makes you feel fuller longer, which is why it’s smart to top a lunch salad with chicken or to trade the breakfast bagel for an omelet or hard-boiled eggs. That said, some animal proteins can be high in calories and saturated fat, so choose lean protein sources and pay close attention to portion sizes.


The USDA National Agricultural Library

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The National Institutes of Health

Harvard School of Public Health’s “The Nutrition Source”

The Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health